Friday, June 5, 2020

The Admirable Bryan Stevenson, Esq.

Who would you put on a list of your most admired living people in the U.S.? I haven’t given much thought to making such a list, but if I did, at this point I think I would have to include Bryan Stevenson.
Who is Bryan Stevenson?
Some of you might know quite well who Stevenson is, but I didn’t know anything about him until this year. I have become highly impressed with him, however, from what I have learned from his book Just Mercy (2014) and the 2019 film (with the same name) based on that book. 
Bryan was born in 1959 in a small town in southern Delaware, and he experienced various segregation indignities during his boyhood years. But he was a straight-A high school student and won a scholarship to Eastern University, where one of his professors was Tony Campolo.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985, Bryan moved to Atlanta and joined the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR).
According to their website, the SCHR “was founded in 1976 by ministers and activists concerned about criminal justice issues in response to the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty that year and to the horrendous conditions in Southern prisons and jails.”
In 1989, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, and has been its executive director until the present.
Led by Stevenson, the EJI established the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally known as the National Lynching Memorial, which opened in 2018, and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which opened the same day.
Stevenson and the EJI speak out about current events also. On May 27, EJI posted “Tragic Death of George Floyd Reveals Continuing Problem of Police Violence” on their website.
A staff writer at The New Yorker recently interviewed Stevenson and the resulting article was published on June 1 under the title, “Bryan Stevenson on the Frustration Behind the George Floyd Protests.”
Why is Bryan Stevenson Admirable?
The subtitle of Just Mercy is A Story of Justice and Redemption. It is touted, correctly I think, as “A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice—from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time.”
By the time I had finished reading the book about two months ago, I had come to admire Stevenson greatly for his unflinching dedication to helping other people, especially men on death row.
I was then eager to see the movie, which was to be released on DVD within days. I put it at #1 on our Netflix queue—but it was so popular that it was the end of May before we were able to get it.
After June and I watched the movie last Sunday evening, I was even more impressed with Stevenson—and also impressed by the way he was portrayed by the actor who played him. And even though I was disappointed not to see it sooner, it was even more meaningful to watch it during this time of protest because of the killing of George Floyd.
(This month you can rent "Just Mercy" for free through a variety of digital movie services in the US, including Apple TV, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, Microsoft, and YouTube, among others.)
As a Christian, I admire the way Bryan has lived out the Gospel message he learned as a boy attending an African Methodist Episcopal Church. In most of his public talks he shares one thing he learned at church as a boy: “I believe each person in our society is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
The only other nationally-known lawyer that I admire as much as Bryan Stevenson, Esq., is the late William Stringfellow (see the first half of this blog post)—with maybe Pres. Obama third.
At the close of his review of the film “Just Mercy,” Shane Claiborne, another graduate of Eastern University who studied under Campolo wrote,
Please watch “Just Mercy” . . . . Don’t just munch your popcorn and go home talking about what a hero Bryan is. Doing so dismisses what Bryan is really about because it lets you off the hook. Walk away from “Just Mercy” dreaming and scheming about the hero you want to be.


  1. The response to this blog posting has been quite disappointing. I expected to hear from several of you and have heard from only a very few.

    My local friend Ken Grenz posted on Facebook, "See the movie AND read the book," and I appreciate him doing that.

    Another local Thinking Friend wrote, " I especially like the last sentence of your blog — an excellent closing," and I was happy to receive that word.

  2. I haven't seen the movie, but the book and his work are both excellent.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ross. I hope you will be able to use one of the links, which are introduced in the posting and that allow the movie to be viewed without cost, so you can see it sometime soon.

  3. A local Thinking Friend wrote a fairly long and meaningful paragraph about Stevenson this morning, but he did not want me to post what he wrote. But I am posting his conclusion (and this does not give away his identity):

    "Like Jesus, Bryan did much of his work on dusty roads where there was no crowd to applaud and herald his arrival; just desperate people in need of ONE person who cared enough to put personal safety aside to rescue the perishing!"

  4. I took a peek at the trailer for "Just Mercy" and it seems a powerful and timely witness. I will try to see it soon. As it happens, my wife and I just this afternoon watched the Netflix documentary, "13th." Our daughter had recommended it to us, and it was also a powerful and timely witness. It traces the evolution of slavery into Jim Crow into the "Southern Strategy" of "law and order" and "war on drugs" and the 1994 crime bill. Released in 2016, it ends with an eerie look at candidate Trump. It is a raw call for justice. Just sitting there watching it gave me renewed sympathy for "I can't breathe." It took my breath away. We did not lose justice. We never had it. Fitful progress was always swallowed up by profound injustice. Slavery is always reincarnated. All the good America has is dangerously close to being burned up with the chaff.

    Our nation was born from a womb of genocide and slavery. Our American failure to render a just mercy on that beginning has left us twisted and distorted in dangerous and painful ways. That we have put the Orange Antichrist in the White House is just one more symptom of our profound failure. Is that the finger of God I see writing on the wall? Have we forgotten the fall of Babylon the Great? Do we think America the Great is immune? We are not even immune to COVID-19! Let alone immune to global warming. Why do we need to be told over and over about just mercy? Micah spelled it all out for us long, long ago, "What have I asked of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God?" (Micah 6:8)

  5. I have read the book. It's been several months, so I need to go back to it.

    1. Yes, after watching the movie, I am thinking about reading the book again -- and if you haven't seen the movie yet, I highly recommend it.